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Shabana
Earns First Egyptian World Crown

by Dan
Kneipp
, Team
Kneipp report index

All content © 2003 Squashtalk

Dec 21, 2003,
Lahore, Pakistan — [HH Final report; complete
results
]

Pakistan
President General Pervez Musharraf (left) presents trophies
along with Lahore’s Lieutenant General Zarrar Azeem.

photo © Dan
Kneipp 2003

MUSHARRAF
SEES SHABANA WIN
Can
you tell me any country in the world aside from Pakistan that could
get the nation’s President to attend a game of squash? Could
you see George W. clapping a great cross court nick? Would Chirac,
Blair or Howard know a tickle boast from a skid boast? This country’s
history of champions means the sport deserves, and gets support
at the highest level, with President General Pervez Musharraf, an
avid squash player and fan, attending today’s final.

On the day
of Joe’s first round match there was an assassination attempt
on Pakistan’s President. His motorcade was crossing a bridge
in Rawalpindi when a bomb went off on the bridge just after he crossed.
He wasn’t harmed. Throughout the whole tournament the security
has been ridiculously thorough, but it reached ludicrous proportions
for the President’s attendance at the final. We arrived at
the venue amid a swarm of armed guards and army personnel. Everyone
was being corralled through metal detectors and frisked. It’s
strange the perks that being a player and coach provides. Joe and
I waltzed through security and despite him beeping through the metal
detector (his mobile phone) we were letf to go through to watch
the final without being checked. As we watched the impressive entrance
of the nation’s top dog I couldn’t help thinking that
we could have had any form of weapon – knife, gun, water balloon
– on us and no one would have known.

A parade of
former squash champions were present at the match including Jansher
Khan, Jahangir Khan, Gogi Alauddin and Qamar Zaman along with 1200
spectators, a head of state and national television. Squash deserves
this attention.

Thierry
Lincou (France) versus Amr Shabana (Egypt)

Amr
Shabana joins Jahangir and Jansher as a World Open winner.

photo © Debra Tessier

It was going
to be interesting to see who was the more nervous of these two players
on such a momentous occasion. Surprisingly both of them started
with impeccable length and width. You hope for the final of the
World Open to be great squash, and from the first rally it was excellent..
Lincou went to a comfortable 8-3 lead by playing his typical tight,
conservative, relentless squash. Neither players was playing any
loose shots, something that is easy to do at the start of a big
match, but once Shabana attempted his normal cross court nicks it
became obvious that he was nervous and tentative. He missed one
cross court nick attempt off the serve by so much that the ball
bounced for a second time near his feet giving a easy stroke away.
He wasn’t to be deterred, realising he had to stick with his
natural and successful game. He went for another nick off the next
serve, hitting a roller from his backhand (he’s left handed,
Lincou’s right handed). Better play by Shabana and some uncharacteristic
errors from Lincou allowed the Egyptian to get the score back to
8-9. Lincou pulled away to 12-9 but increasing confidence from Shabana
who began going for his shots saw the scores tied again at 12-12.
Shabana got to 14 first with a backhand from the back of the court
that was a disguised, held, crosscourt flick drop shot nick. Lincou
hit a drop shot winner to tie the score and naturally the Egyptian
called Set 1. The most surprising part of the next point was that
Shabana didn’t go for a nick. Everyone was looking for it,
including Lincou. Instead Shabana hit a great volley off the serve
down the line hugging the wall. Lincou lunged and returned it, but
it sprayed off the side wall giving a stroke away and the first
game to Shabana. 15-14 in a lengthy 26 minutes.

Shabana has
been more concentrated and intense on court during this tournament
than any time I have seen him play. Yet he has still allowed his
good nature and humour to come through. In the first game he was
about to serve and a strange groan emitted from the crowd. He deadpanned
“Who is dying here?’. At the start of the 2nd he hit
a tight backhand drive that hugged the wall, but there was considerable
contact, with Shabana not clearing the area well. If his ball hadn’t
been tight it would have been a simple stroke, but his ball was
on the wall. The ref made a bad decision in giving a stroke. Shabana
was very unhappy. The front row of seating included the President,
the Lieutenant General of Lahore, Jansher and Jahangir Khan. Shabana
was livid at the pathetic stoke he just received and was trying
to portray to the ref that there was no way a winner could be hit
from where the ball was. He yelled out, gesticulating, “Not
even the great Jahangir could hit a winner from there”. He
then blew a kiss to Jahangir. The crowd cracked up laughing and
clapping. Shabana is a very nice fellow, and if you know him at
all you realise he would only blow a kiss in a nice manner and not
in a mocking way. He seemed to realise it could be misinterpreted
and as he went to receive serve he bowed to Jahangir. The crowd
was loving it.

Lincou took
an early lead in the 2nd and Shabana’s intensity and willingness
to track each ball down and not be too impatient with his shot selection
began to wane. Lincou led 8-7, and a mixutre of winners and an increasing
error rate from his opponent helped close the game out 15-9 in just
15 minutes, considerably shorter than the first game.

Shabana didn’t
look any fresher in the third and quickly fell to a 6-3 deficit.
More points were being decided by lets and strokes by two tiring
players that were happy to get an easier point if possible. At 6-5
Shabana began controlling more of the rallies, doing a great job
of volleying the ball straight to length, then going short once
Lincou was at the back. The Egyptian got a bad call from the ref
and called out “I’m sorry for anything I ever did to
you”.

Even though
Shabana was playing great squash – good length, high intensity,
great volleying, he wasn’t attacking much and was playing
a similar game to Lincou. It’s not the smartest thing to try
to beat Lincou at his own game. Shabana realised this and started
going for more winners which paid off immediately and took him to
a 11-6 lead. I wrote yesterday that Lincou plays text book squash
with consistent length, constant volleys and relentless intensity.
Joe and I were talking to Jansher Khan after dinner. He hadn’t
seen Lincou play before, but was very impressed with his style of
play. Lincou realised he couldn’t wait for Shabana to put
the ball away and began to go for more himself, hitting four winners
on the way to leveling the score at 11-11. At such a crucial junction
in the match both players gave everything. Obviously the player
that could win the next game would have a huge advantage, particularly
considering how much running and lunging both guys had done. Winners
off Shabana’s racquet was the difference at the end of this
game. He prevented Lincou from taking another point winning 15-11.
The game had lasted 23 minutes, the total match time already at
70 minutes.

How ever much
running you imagine these two had done, it was more. The rallies
were long, the length was tight, they were both volleying well and
there was a lot of scrambling points at the front with plenty of
attacking shots and gut-wrenching snaps and volleys. Shabana is
the more attacking of the two and he had made Lincou do more work.
I was wondering if he could maintain his intensity for one more
game, or if he would tighten up. Remembering that although Lincou
has been the most consistent player throughout 2003, he still hadn’t
won a decent sized tournament that had a significant number of top
players present. Shabana this year won the Spanish Open that had
Peter Nicol, Ong Beng Hee and Anthony Ricketts participating.

It didn’t
seem to matter who had won which tournament and how nerves would
hold up. What mattered was who had done more running. Lincou began
looking like Joe did yesterday – drained, heavy footed, tired
and worn out. He started the first point with a cross court lob
off the serve that went out. This set the mood for the game. Lincou
pushed really hard, but Shabana sniffed success and started volleying
more. He also lobbed more. None of his lobs were outright winners,
but they caused Lincou a lot of grief and helped Shabana’s
deception. Lincou couldn’t tell if he was about to lob, drive
or drop. He started doing tickle boasts on his forehand that were
continually leaving the Frenchman flat footed. Shabana raced to
a 10-3 lead which he extended to 14-7. He only needed one match
ball, winning from a tired backhand drop of Lincou’s that
hit the tin. Shabana was extremely emotional once he won, becoming
the first Egyptian to win the World Open. He hugged his opponent,
his coaches and Jahangir. I was worried he was going to try to hug
the President and security would jump on him.

This was a
brilliant game of squash, befitting of a World Championship. Shabana
deserved this title. Not just because he played better squash on
the day, but because to reach the final and take the trophy he has
had victories over David Palmer (#3), Anthony Ricketts (#6 – including
saving five match balls), Karim Darwish (#7) and Thierry Lincou
(#4). Lincou didn’t play a single player inside the top 10,
and theoreticaly had an easier ride. If you’re going to win
a World Championship it’s fitting that you have to beat the
best players including the reigning champ.

MOTIVATING
THE PAKISTANI PLAYERS

Pakistan Squash Federation put on an impressive dinner and show
after the final, with talk of next year’s Pakistan Open, and
the President offering one million rupees to any local player that
could lift the World Open crown. Watch out for the next generation
of Pakistani players who have some extra motivation.

[9] Amr Shabana
(Egy) bt [4] Thierry Lincou (Fra) 15-14, 9-15, 15-11, 15-7 (73m)